Monday, April 18, 2016

Bellowhead: Folk the Rules

"All music is folk music. I ain't never heard no horse sing a song." 
- Louis Armstrong
When you think of folk music, what do you picture? A sea of beards, acoustic guitars, and seriousness? Or some guy bouncing around in a sparkly silver waistcoat while two violinists have a dance-off and a trumpet player buoys the audience to join in with the actions?

Photo by Cardiff Folk Club. Not pictured: sparkly waistcoat (that came out later!)

I caught the Cardiff leg of Bellowhead's farewell tour last night, and if there's one thing I learned from that show (and from the band's twelve-year career at large), it's that folk music can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. Yes, most of the songs they played were based on traditional compositions, and yes, there were a lot of fiddles involved. But therein lies Bellowhead's mad genius: these quintessentially 'folky' elements are blended and bastardised with all kinds of other influences, resulting in a sound that's utterly beyond categorisation yet unmistakeably still folk music at its core.

Here are just of the distinctly un-folky musical styles that Bellowhead stirred into their sonic stew during yesterday's set:
  • Pop
  • Rock
  • Punk
  • Funk
  • Jazz
  • Film music (a snatch of John Barry's James Bond Theme was interpolated into one song)
People called Bob Dylan 'Judas' just for using an electric guitar. One can only wonder what those dour purists would have made of the scene at St. David's Hall last night. Jon Boden's glitterball waistcoat was merely the tip of the iceberg; there were disco lights, bagpipes, arena rock-style band member introductions ("On the melodeon, Jooohn Spiiiers!"), and goodness knows what else. Heck, one fan was there on her hen do. If electric Dylan was Judas, then Bellowhead are the Devil himself.

As I noted earlier, this tour is to be Bellowhead's last. There are still a few dates left (click here to view them), and I'd strongly recommend that you catch them if you can. If you can't, however, don't despair; the band's anarchic, irreverent take on traditional folk music will remain available on their five albums, which feature an even wider array of instruments, strange noises, and subversions of everything you think you know about folk. Each one is a joyous listen, and the band are very good not only at taking trad music to strange new places but also at highlighting the bawdy and outrageous bits that were there all along.

If you're unsure of where to start, I'd recommend Hedonism, Bellowhead's third LP. Buy that one first and work outwards from there.

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